In the fashion industry, the name Tom Ford brings to mind images of post-coital women writhing around naked with bottles of expensive cologne pressed between their legs—but not everything in the world of this designer is sex and money. To some, Ford is a style icon, while to others he’s a peddler of smut and perversion; but somewhere between the runway shows and the raw lust is a focused man who fought his way to the top, battled depression and refused to let anyone else take control of his own artistic visions.
Designer Tom Ford was born Thomas Carlyle Ford in Austin, Texas August 7, 1961, to parents Tom Ford Sr. and Shirley Burton. Both real estate agents, his parents often left him with his grandmother, where he spent days swimming at her pool or visiting the local petting zoo. Since he was a young child he remembers being very interested in artistry and the imagery in the world around him. "I was always very visual, always interested in design," he tells Biography. "I don't mean that I sat around at age 5 sketching clothes. But if my parents went out to dinner and left me alone, I would rearrange all the living room furniture before they came back home." It was during this time that he began to learn from the two women he later credits as the main inspiration in his life—his traditional, classic mother and flashy, Texan grandmother.
When the family relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ford attended the Santa Fe Preparatory School—an alma mater to which he later returned in 2007 to give a guest graduation speech. Attending New York University after high school, Ford remembers his college years quite fondly. “This nice guy from my art-history class in this cute little blazer came in, and he asked if I wanted to go to a party. Andy Warhol was at the party, and he took us to Studio 54—wow,” he told New York Magazine. “Even today, I still start shaking when I hear Donna Summer, because it’s the music of my coming of age. Every party I have, if I’m not careful, I end up putting that music on and whirling some girl around the dance floor.” After flunking out a year later—because that’s what happens when you disco instead of study—Ford moved to West Hollywood to try his hand at acting. Retaining mostly commercial work he realized he needed to go back to school and used his savings to move back to New York and enroll in Parsons School of Design.
But he didn’t study fashion. Like so many artists it was the love of creating that got his juices flowing, and he was in his senior year as an architect major before he realized he was in the wrong field. "I just woke up one morning and thought, 'What am I doing?' Architecture was just way too ... serious. I mean, every architectural project I ever did, I worked a dress into it somehow. So I realized that fashion was the right balance between art and commerce, and that was it," he told Biography. He switched to fashion and graduated in June 1986, without any experience, connections or knowledge of the industry.
Like so many successful people, however, he was determined to find a way to obtain his goals. Reportedly calling sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick every single day for a month until she gave him an interview, Ford finally got an appointment to see her—and landed a job as her design assistant. It was during that time he met his longtime partner Richard Buckley; the two met in an elevator while Ford was gathering clothing for his employer. “As the elevator opened, there was the man with the eyes the color of water,” Ford recalls in Out Magazine. “I decided in that elevator ride that I was going to marry him. I'm very pragmatic, and I was, like, okay, there's some kind of connection here. He ticked every box, and—boom—by the time we got to the floor, I was like, okay, sold.”
Two years later Ford moved to Perry Ellis where he designed jeans under then head-designer Marc Jacobs. He stayed there for two years before he was offered a position in Italy—designer for women’s ready-to-wear at Gucci. Within four years he was also designing menswear, shoes and handbags, and took the position of creative director at the struggling fashion house.
During his decade as creative director, the brand’s sales increased from $230 million to almost three billion dollars, single-handedly bringing Gucci to the forefront of fashion. “There was a period of time where it seemed as though everything I touched turned to gold,” Ford told Business of Fashion. “From the moment I started at Gucci, our numbers doubled and then doubled and then doubled again.” Sex definitely sells—his gutsy designs and risqué campaigns oozed seduction—and more than one caused a bit of a public uproar; but for Ford, the more skin the better. “Why shouldn’t women have sex for enjoyment? Why should showing off be a bad thing?” he asks in New York Magazine. In 2010 the Gucci Group bought Yves Saint Laurent, leading Ford to also head up design for YSL. After 10 years at Gucci and four at YSL, the Pinault-Printemps-Redoute Group obtained the company and Ford refused to work without complete creative control; he left the brand in April 2004.
Leaving Gucci, however, was easier said than done. “I went to my house in London at 4 p.m. on the afternoon that I left Gucci and got into bed. I was super-depressed. I had terrible, terrible nightmares. My life at Gucci was like being married, having two kids, and living in a house you’ve built. Then you come home one day, the door’s locked, and your wife is in there f**king someone else,” he told New York Magazine. He’s not afraid to admit that it took the help of a professional psychiatrist to help him get his priorities in check. He looks back on that period as one of the darkest times of his life, but something that he did eventually recover from. “I had no identity. I had nothing to get up in the morning and do, other than play tennis. My values were in the wrong place. I think that I had got so caught up in being successful and making money, and making sure the company made money, making sure each quarter our share price went up,” he tells Vogue.
Now with the freedom with which to be his own creative genius, Ford started his eponymous label a year later. He signed with Estée Lauder in 2005 to start a line of Tom Ford cosmetics and fragrances, as well as Marcolin Group for a line of eyewear to include optics and sunglasses. It wasn’t until 2006 that Ford came back to ready-to-wear, producing his first line of menswear, accessories and shoes. “It’s much, much, much harder starting from scratch,” Tom Ford told Business of Fashion. “I didn’t have any idea how hard it would be, and I have had every advantage that anyone could possibly have.” But as luck would have it during that same time he served as guest editor of Vanity Fair, and posed for the infamous nude cover (even parodied on a later issue)—once again returning the designer to the media spotlight.
By 2007 Ford had his own New York flagship store and was announcing plans to open multiple stores internationally—including Milan, London, Hawaii and Los Angeles. While rumors speculated that he may never return to the womenswear, three years later in 2010 he finally made his debut—launching his women’s line with a spectacular invite-only selection of guests to a show that included name like Beyoncé, Lauren Hutton and Karlie Kloss as runway models. Completely unexpected, even his close friends were surprised they were going to be in his show. “He asked me to do this six months ago, but I thought we’d just all be standing around at a cocktail or something. So when I got there and he said we had to walk, I said, ‘Holy cow!’ ” Julianne Moore told Vogue.
In March of 2005 almost a year after leaving Gucci, Ford opened his film company FADE TO BLACK and co-wrote, directed and produced his first film, A Single Man. Taking a leap into the world of cinema the fashion designer could not find a single studio that would allow him creative control over the movie—so he financed the $7 million dollar project out of pocket. Adapted from a book of the same name, Ford revised his script 15 times in two years and poured himself into the endeavor from financial responsibility to on-screen designs. “I styled all that,” Ford told the New York Times. “Every bit of it is me.” The film debuted at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win 22 awards and 28 nominations including AFI Movie of the Year Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor by Colin Firth.
In most recent years his designs have been worn on the red carpet by celebrities from Anne Hathaway to Lady Gaga and even the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Now with over 60 freestanding stores around the globe including Tokyo, Dubai, Zurich and Russia (100 expected by the end of 2014), the Tom Ford brand has grown exponentially. “There’s really nowhere in the world that my name isn’t known,” Ford told New York Magazine. As a designer he has won over 25 awards including multiple CFDA Awards for Designer of the Year, lifetime achievement awards and numerous Man of the Year awards.
In his personal life Ford is ever cautious, a man focused on precision, presentation and making sure that everything from his family life to his business is running smoothly. After having his son last year, Alexander John Buckley Ford, with his partner of 25 years, Ford splits his time between London, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, where his family is located. And while Ford may seem the opposite of a quiet family man; he considers his sex-driven persona to be a large part of his brand image and not necessarily who he is. “I’m getting too old to care about sex anyway,” he told New York Magazine. “Sometimes, I feel that I’ve controlled my image too much, and no one knows who I really am.”